By Thomas Wilson
TOKYO (Reuters) - After a damaging accounting scandal at Toshiba Corp <6502.T> last year, half of Japanese firms have seen changes in the way they are audited and have taken or are considering steps to boost book-keeping compliance, a Reuters poll shows.
The findings suggest some, if incomplete, progress has been made in Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's push to improve corporate governance.
Government efforts to make firms more transparent and shareholder friendly have won plaudits from investors and are soon set to be followed by plans from regulators for new rules to improve standards in the auditing profession.
The spotlight has shone particularly harshly on auditors after Toshiba's $1.3 billion padding of profits over seven years went unnoticed by its auditor, a lapse that was a painful reminder of a similar scandal at Olympus Corp <7733.T> in 2011 where accounting tricks were used to mask big losses.
In the Reuters Corporate Survey, conducted Oct. 26-Nov. 8, 52 percent of firms said that auditing had changed.
Of those, the vast majority noted more detailed questioning, while a third said the frequency with which they met with auditors had risen. Another 17 percent said they were getting better advice.
"There's been a rise in the number of man-hours spent checking for fraud," wrote a manager at a retailer.
Companies answered anonymously to the poll survey, which is conducted monthly for Reuters by Nikkei Research. Of the 531 large and medium-sized non-financial firms polled, 246 replied to questions on audit-related and accounting matters.
Much of the blame for the scandal at Toshiba has been laid at the feet of a corporate culture that placed too much emphasis on unquestioning loyalty to top bosses even when unrealistic sales and profit targets were set.
But it seems as if companies are now more keen to make sure their books are in order, with exactly 50 percent saying they have taken or are considering steps to increase compliance.
"We've made our internal rules stricter," wrote a manager at a machinery firm.
Other measures cited by companies in the poll include bumping up headcount in finance and accounting departments, the strengthening of education programs for employees about compliance and increased oversight of group firms.
"Japan's corporate culture has changed a lot," said Yoshinori Kawamura, a Waseda University professor specializing in accounting.
"But the Toshiba scandal highlighted a very Japanese management climate, and confidence has been lost. Though some bad aspects have been solved, we can't say with conviction that everything is really fixed."
In a sign that Toshiba at least is still fixing its corporate culture, the conglomerate said on Friday that it had newly found that employees at a control systems unit had inflated sales since 2003.
But it stressed that the discovery was made thanks to tighter internal controls.
"This incident was revealed as we applied stricter rules in asset evaluation," Chief Financial Officer Masayoshi Hirata told reporters.
In the wake of the Toshiba scandal, accounting experts also raised questions about whether low fees paid by Japan-listed companies to auditors meant they don't spend enough time scrutinizing accounts.
The Reuters poll, however, showed that only 8 percent of firms have seen an increase in audit fees.
($1 = 106.7000 yen)
(Reporting by Thomas Wilson; Additional reporting by Makiko Yamazaki; Editing by Edwina Gibbs)